NEW YORK — New York police Assistant Chief Joseph Reznick went this weekend to visit the grave of a child known as Baby Hope, as he’s done countless times before in the past two decades.
But the Sunday trip to St. Raymond’s Cemetery was different: Reznick replaced a placard on the headstone that read “the identity of this little girl is unknown” with one that spelled her name, Anjelica Castillo.
“It felt good to finally know who she is,” said Reznick, who worked as a lieutenant in 1991 when the body of the unknown 4-year-old was discovered inside a picnic cooler, discarded along a Manhattan highway.
A distant cousin was charged with murder this weekend after a break in the cold case, one of New York City’s most notorious. Conrado Juarez, 52, confessed to sexually abusing the girl, then suffocating her, police said.
For Reznick, long-awaited answers were both a horror and a relief.
“Her picture, and now this confession, I’m going to have in my mind for the rest of my life,” Reznick said. “Not knowing what had happened, I imagined a sort of best-case scenario. But now that I heard the real story, I know it is one of the most disturbing things.”
The 32-quart blue cooler was discovered by construction workers in 1991. Inside was the naked, malnourished bound body of a little girl, and a few full cans of Coke. She weighed just 20 pounds, half that of an average 4-year-old. Detectives estimated the cooler had been baking in the hot sun for a week, and her body showed signs of sexual abuse, but it wasn’t clear how she had died.
But no one reported her missing. No one recognized her from the photo rendition plastered on lampposts around the city. Her body was found before sophisticated DNA recovery, so a profile wasn’t made until her corpse was exhumed years later.
Authorities had no leads.
As the frustration mounted, so did their affection for the girl they nicknamed “Baby Hope.” Officers organized a funeral for her in 1993, and hundreds attended. They paid for her gravestone at the Bronx cemetery and visited annually.
Detectives made a publicity push this summer on the 22nd anniversary of the discovery of her body, canvassing the area, plastering posters, asking for anyone with information to come forward.
This time, it worked. A tip came in that led to the girl’s mother, her sister and a birth certificate.
The investigation involved the case detectives, the Real Time Crime Center technology hub, legal bureau, intelligence division special victims unit and the Manhattan district attorney’s cold case unit, led by Melissa Mourges, who was assigned to the case when the body was found.
Filling in the child’s family tree spanned two countries.
“There’s no room for mistakes in a 1991 case,” said Chief of Detectives Phil Pulaski. “You have to be careful you don’t move too fast that you preclude evidence from coming forward. There is a lot of planning, and planning is work.”
Evidence led investigators to Juarez, a 52-year-old cousin of the girl’s father, Pulaski said.
He said he took Anjelica into an empty bedroom at a family apartment and sexually assaulted her, then suffocated her with a pillow, police said. He and his sister, who has since died, folded up the body, bound it, wrapped it in cloth and put it inside the cooler, then told relatives they were headed to the beach, Reznick said.
Police and prosecutors are confident in the confession. But Juarez’s lawyer questioned the legitimacy of admissions gleaned after more than 12 hours of interrogation.
“If this statement was made, under what circumstances was it made? … There are questions that need to be answered,” the attorney, Michael Croce, said Monday.
“I’m not, in any way, shape or form, trying to minimize this tragedy,” he said, adding that he was trying to point out the uncertainties of the case, including the idea that family members may have known but said nothing.
The girl’s mother, Margarita Castillo, refused Monday to tell reporters why she never reported her daughter missing or whether she knew she had been killed. The family will never have peace, she said in Spanish.
For Reznick, when the gavel comes down at the end of the trial, he said he’ll feel true relief.
“I remember saying at her funeral, `This little girl was the most innocent of the innocent,”’ he said. “I think that remains.”